With his first story, Tarzan of the Apes, first published in the magazine All-Story in 1912 (later published as a book in 1914), Tarzan the jungle lord has dominated pop culture for over a century now. I was first introduced to Tarzan through the vastly entertaining films starring former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, and these remain a favorite of mine. Tarzan has been remade into new movies and even TV shows over the years (including 1981’s laughably bad Tarzan The Ape Man, where he was a secondary character in his own movie, with Bo Derek’s Jane taking the spotlight). Warner Brothers, who produced the stogy and dreary Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, has decided to give the Tarzan story another shot with The Legend of Tarzan.
Alexander Skarsgård stars as Tarzan this time, and he’s perfect casting. Not only is he physically fit, but he’s always been a good, sturdy actor, whether he was playing a vampire in the enjoyable True Blood, or as a Marine in the mesmerizing Generation Kill. Skarsgård shines as a jungle lord who is just as wise and book smart as he is adept at fighting apes in the jungle. This isn’t the monosyllabic Weissmuller’s version, but a Tarzan who can actually carry an intelligent conversation. Current ‘it-girl’ Margo Robbie is a pleasant surprise as Jane, the love of Tarzan’s life. She’s just as good an actress, and the script works hard not to reduce her to the typical damsel in distress. Her screen presence is just as bright and vibrant as that Skarsgård’s and Robbie easily holds her own with him.
The story line is technically a sequel, taking place some years after Tarzan and Jane first meet. They are married and living in England, where an envoy from the United States, George Washington Williams (the always good Samuel L. Jackson; Christoph Waltz, his co-star from Django Unchained, is also superb as Rom, the film’s villain), convinces Tarzan to return to the Congo to check up on illegal activities rumored to be undertaken by the King of Belgium. The Legend of Tarzan wisely sets its story in the nineteenth century, at the height of the colonial occupation of Africa. The time between the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries is really the best age for Tarzan to swing around, as it gives the filmmakers ample opportunity to romanticize both the jungle lord and his surroundings, which they do to great effect here.
The Legend of Tarzan works so well because it’s a nice balancing act between a more down to earth view of the jungle lord and the world he lives in, without actually throwing out all the stuff that made him so much fun. Tarzan is basically a superhero, one of the first, and the film realizes that by giving him several spectacular action sequences, including a fight with a great ape and a marvelous, knock-down, dragged-out battle between a fierce Tarzan and a railroad car filled with hapless soldiers. There are some stumbling blocks, like the characters using modern day slang (“How are you going to play this?”), but overall, The Legend of Tarzan is a great deal of fun. Highly recommended. –SF